‘Who we are called to serve’: NBA chaplains offer encouragement on and off the court

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Nobles Darby IV (Chaplain for Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Browns), Damon Gunn (Chaplain for Houston Rockets) Dru Evans, Colin Pinkney (Chaplain for Charlotte Hornets), Herbie Kuhn (Chaplain & PA Announcer for Toronto Raptors). (Photo provided/Colin Pinkney)
Nobles Darby IV (Chaplain for Cleveland Cavaliers and Cleveland Browns), Damon Gunn (Chaplain for Houston Rockets) Dru Evans, Colin Pinkney (Chaplain for Charlotte Hornets), Herbie Kuhn (Chaplain & PA Announcer for Toronto Raptors). (Photo provided/Colin Pinkney)

The history of chaplains in the NBA dates back approximately 40 years.

In the 1970s, former Philadelphia 76ers players Bobby Jones and Julius Erving requested space and time to hold Bible study before each game. Their request was granted, and as more teams began to adopt this practice, the NBA and other professional sports teams, such as NASCAR, NHL, MLB and NFL, began to retain chaplains to lead faith practices and offer encouragement to players of any faith before games.

Kyle Riley and Ryan Bramlett, co-chaplains for the Pacers, leading prayer in chapel. (Photo provided/Kyle Riley)

Houston Rockets Chaplain Damon Gunn was one of the first to volunteer his time, and now, in 2024, each NBA team has two to four volunteer chaplains on rotation.

“We like to just inspire guys and just really encourage them, and it’s usually not about basketball,” said Colin Pinkney, chaplain for the Charlotte Hornets. “We’d like to help them sort of normalize their lives because so much of their lives is basketball. What we’d like to do is offer them emotional, moral support they need just as men, as individuals who aren’t defining their whole life and personhood around the sport.”

READ MORE: All-Star Gospel Celebration to kick off NBA All-Star weekend

Pinkney has been serving his team for the last 20 years. Having grown up as a huge Michael Jordan fan in North Carolina and attending NC State while they won the national championship in 1983, Pinkney said being able to be this close to the NBA is amazing, but what he loves most is serving God through serving the players.

Volunteer and community work is a huge part of Pinkney’s life as a former pastor and CEO of a local nonprofit in North Carolina. Although he loves teaching the Bible, becoming a chaplain for the NBA was not an intentional decision, he said. It just happened.

“I got to know Dale Curry many, many, many years ago … he knew that I liked teaching the Bible, and I liked doing ministry and serving people,” Pinkney said. “He asked if I would come and serve the team that way. I was a little bit in disbelief because I was not aware that this existed inside the NBA. And so, but of course, you don’t say no to Dale Curry.”

Before each game, Pinkney said members of the Hornets and the opposing team, coaches, and NBA personnel meet for chapel. There is a lot of prayer involved and spiritual encouragement, but Pinkney said he mostly focuses on providing emotional and moral support for the players as men, hoping to connect with them and offer guidance as individuals.

Indianapolis native Kyle Riley is one of the Pacers’ four chaplains serving their first season as an NBA chaplain and said they are in the “genesis state” of what God could do in these areas for the team. While chapel is currently structured as a place for prayer, conversations, and building relationships, equity and trust, Riley said there appears to be an appetite for more.

“We see ourselves as a chaplain to more than just the players and the coaches. I mean, really, I’m looking for any opportunities that I can to connect with anybody who was in Gainbridge Fieldhouse,” Riley said. “You’re really there to be present with maybe anybody who could need some hope and need some help.”

Riley is no stranger to basketball, having played in high school at Pike and in college at Howard University before coaching at East Texas. It was during his time in Texas that Riley grew in his faith and looked into vocational ministry, he said. Although he had no plans of becoming a pastor, Riley said he returned home to Indy to settle down and start a family and was eventually “plucked” into Traders Point Christian Church where he now serves as a campus pastor.

Colin Pinkney, chaplain for the Charlotte Hornets with Michael Jordon at the Charlotte Bobcats Gala, 2012. (Photo provided/Charlotte Bobcats Media)

Riley said he had to step away from basketball for about 10 years, but God led him back to it when Indiana Pacers All-Star point guard Tyrese Haliburton — who attends Traders Point — brought up the opportunity to serve as a team chaplain to Riley, Aaron Brockett and Ryan Bramlett. Today, the three ministers volunteer their time with the Pacers alongside Moe Michalski, Riley said.

“It’s been an opportunity to really see the humanity in so many of these guys that were put on a pedestal,” Riley said. “For me, it’s been an encouragement too, at the same time I’ve entered back into this space that is so near and dear to my heart, just to be able to, again, connect relationally with these guys and see they’re humans at the end of the day and they need Jesus just like anybody else.”

Riley said ministering and speaking into their lives is a privilege that is earned. He and the other chaplains spent a lot of time just getting to know the team, recognizing they are real people with real lives and challenges they face and learning how to offer the right kind of support.

Many of the players are around the same age as Pinkney’s own adult children, which he said puts him in a unique position to offer guidance. Providing a space for them to just talk about their lives outside of basketball, ask questions and receive prayer is what he loves most about the work.

“It’s a great opportunity to influence young Black men to impact our community, to be role models, to understand the power they have to affect young people in our community, and I love being a part of that,” Pinkney said.

During the 2024 NBA All-Star Weekend, NBA chaplains from across the country will gather in Indy alongside the players. In addition to hosting chapel for the teams, Pinkney, Riley and the other chaplains will take part in the All-Star Gospel Celebration, visit the Marion County Jail to minister to inmates and offer community outreach at Laundry & Tan Connect, 201 S. Rual St.

“It’s a reminder and a call for us as chaplains that … when He [Jesus] says, ‘Come and serve the least of these, you’re doing that to me,’” Riley said. “So, whether it’s the marginalized, the poor, the incarcerated, it helps us to be reminded that no matter who was in front of us, they are worthy of the same attention, and passion, and love as somebody that we’re sitting across from was getting ready to put a ball through a hoop and makes millions of dollars doing it.”

For more information about the NBA chaplains or the 2024 NBA All-Star Weekend schedule, visit probasketballchaplains.org.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx.